The Train Across the Kattegat
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The Train Across the Kattegat

On a rare clear, sunny day we transited the English Channel, eastbound. It was confusing at first, with traffic approaching from New York and from the Mediterranean, all merging casually into a progressively narrower shipping lane. We could all see each other. It was one of those rare occasions when even the merchantmen had people on the bridge, looking out the windshields. Once we got settled into the Channel, and we were all keeping right except to pass, then, you guessed it, the skipper and the exec came up to help, and the navigator went to the conning tower to help by looking out through the periscope. At least they got a good look at the Cliffs of Dover.

Thirty-six hours after we passed Dover and Calais, we turned right at the tip of Jutland, and we headed toward Copenhagen. This was the midwatch, when all normal people were in bed. At least we would get stickybuns when we got off watch at 4:00. This tip of land is where all Baltic Sea traffic passes to get to the open ocean. Leningrad, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, East Germany, and Copenhagen all had to use this passage for all their ocean traffic.

It was a clear night. Just before we made the turn, I noted that we could see Norway to the left, Denmark to the right, and Sweden ahead. There was a lot of traffic. We turned right, and headed down the channel. At one point the port lookout reported that he could see 38 surface contacts forward of the beam. He was not bothering to look aft. Things were quite confusing here, because the Swedish port of Goteborg was ahead to the left, the Danish ports of Frederikshavn and Arhus ahead to the right, Oslo behind, the North Sea on the starboard quarter, and the island of Laeso somewhere ahead, probably to starboard, if our luck was holding. Reading all those lights was tricky. It was difficult to remember which ship or boat was which. That was important, because we needed to know which ones were drawing right, and which ones were drawing left. Most importantly, we needed to know which ones were not drawing either way, since those were the ones that we would collide with. Keeping track of the precise bearings of each of dozens of contacts was tricky, since we could not use a light and write things down, or my night vision would be destroyed. All the data was running around in my puny little head.

I was scared. But we was too macho to admit it. And what did we have for help? A quartermaster striker in the conning tower, looking through the periscope when he had the chance. The skipper, exec, and navigator were asleep. It was after midnight, you see.

After a while I found myself staring at an unusual set of lights in the distance. They stretched out for a long way, covering a significant segment of the horizon. It was not a pattern of lights that could be a ship, and the even spacing was suspicious. I puzzled about them as much as I could, what with all the other shipping in the area. I thought the string of lights must have been on the shoreline, though I couldn't figure what they might have been illuminating.

Then I noticed that the lights were moving in relation to the shore lights that I could see on Jutland. That relaxed me a bit, since I figured that it must have been a passenger train running along the coast, and a train couldn't hit me. That would explain the repetitious pattern of lights, evenly spaced.

Some confusion about our neighbors to the port side drew my attention for a while, then the starboard lookout called my attention back to the string of lights on his side of the boat. I was startled. They were much too close to us for them to be ashore, if we were on course. I called below and demanded an immediate sounding of the water's depth. I screamed for the quartermaster of the watch to get me a navigational fix, immediately. I almost gave the order to turn to port. I reached for the sound-powered telephone, so that I could get the chief of the watch to wake the skipper for me. Then the situation unfolded so quickly thatwe were turned into mere observers.

The string of lights was a column of Danish fast patrol boats, cruising at what we later found out was 55 knots. The last boat in the column peeled out of the formation, and circled us. Its crew put a spotlight on our boat, destroying our night vision, and lingering on our flag. They flashed their lights at us a couple of times in salute, and they raced off to catch up with the rest of their column.

Normally, after a midwatch, we would grab some stickybuns, and some juice, and hit the sack until lunchtime. That night I didn't eat. I didn't want to socialize in the crew's mess. I just went to bed. I lay there shaking with the residual fear from the watch I had just stood, unable to sleep. At 8:00 I had a light breakfast with the other officers, and I got back into bed to shake some more. The skipper remarked about how uneventful the night had been. I had called him several times to tell him how many ships there were and how close they were, but he didn't remember any of it. I found out later that he never bothered to listen when I called, because he found my voice calming. He assumed that if there was a problem that I would sound upset. It seems that he never remembered that I had called him for help, though he had sounded coherent enough, even reassuring, when I had talked with him.

The next day we tied up at a quay wall at a city park in downtown Copenhagen. It was a delightful week in late June. We were near the statue of the little mermaid. I carefully forgot about my last midwatch. That's what good liberty is all about.

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